If it wasn't for a bit of bad timing, the most infamous traitor in American history might have snuffed the life of a certain general by the name of George Washington.
On a September night in 1780, a matter of moments prevented turncoat Benedict Arnold from reaching a British ship in time to set in motion the kidnapping and possible assassination of the American commander in chief. General Washington escaped without a scratch or a clue, reaching his destination and dining with one of his favorite and most trusted underlings – Mr. Arnold himself.
It was yet another in a series of fortunate events that helped the American cause in the Revolutionary War. As revealed in a masterful new military history, the home team was often on the very edge of disaster.
Ultimately, "the war came much closer to ending short of a great American victory than many now realize," argues historian John Ferling in Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence.
At many times, an American victory appeared hopeless. Generals made strategic errors, troops fled during combat, and battles were lost across the Eastern Seaboard.
On the other hand, the British made countless errors and miscalculations from the beginning to the end of the war, often dismissing the Continental Army as ragtag when it was, to use a modern phrase, just differently abled.
Meanwhile, a constellation of fickle factors from the weather to the French turned things around when it counted. And thankfully, the Americans were aided by daring generals, oblivious British leaders, and thousands of stubborn soldiers.
The famous battles (Bunker Hill, Yorktown) and familiar names (Paul Revere, John Paul Jones) are all in "Almost a Miracle." (The book's title comes from Washington's own description of the war.) But Ferling brings something new – a sense of the intense struggles, the multiple turning points, and the vital roles played by overcaution (frequently disastrous) and audacity (frequently decisive).
In his richly detailed battle-by-battle account of the war, Ferling succeeds where other military histories fail by providing helpful background for those who don't know their flanks from their feints. He also brings the military leaders to life, exploring their backgrounds, their dispositions, their willingness to take risks.
Some are eccentric, like the top general who preferred the company of his entourage of dogs to people and claimed to speak the "language of dogissm."
Other officers are impetuous, including the French general Marquis de Lafayette. He was just 20 years old when he arrived to help Washington but soon won his way into the commander's heart through "verve, daring and sycophancy." (Some 125 years later, the general's name would be beautifully invoked – "Lafayette, we are here!" – by a military officer on French soil during World War I.)
The most important general of all, of course, is named Washington, and here – for once – he doesn't seem about as wooden as his legendary teeth.
In "Almost a Miracle," the picture is fuller: Washington comes across as cranky and misguided, prone to military blunders and indifferent to both the fate of slaves and the strict class structure that preserved a mammoth gulf between troops and their officers.
Yet Washington had a fine intelligence and a rare ability to inspire, lead and – crucially – escape blame for failures.
While "Almost a Miracle" isn't a cultural history, Ferling is careful to leave the battlefield to visit small towns, prison camps, and Europe. He tells us that the biggest losers of the war included America's slaves, never given a full opportunity to build respect by fighting for their country, and native Americans, left more unprotected than ever.
Ferling's portraits of the soldiers are the most vivid of all.
Outside of the Civil War, the battle for independence appears to have had a higher mortality rate than any other US conflict. Nearly 1 out of every 16 men of military age lost their lives – a whopping 25,000 out of 2 million Americans (and the equivalent of losing 3.75 million soldiers today).
And those who survived endured perhaps the worst conditions of any war in American history. "The thousandth part of their suffering, has not nor ever will be told," one private wrote. Again and again, readers hear about soldiers left in rags – or, in some cases, no clothes at all – and forced into near-starvation.
In the minds of many Americans, the Revolutionary War is hazy and far away, full of stern-looking men in powdered wigs and funny-looking outfits. "Almost a Miracle" reminds us that real people sacrificed mightily during a long, difficult, and deadly slog.
Ultimately, the perseverance of countless forgotten Americans – and not just happenstance – guaranteed that the Fourth of July would be anything but just another summer's day.
• Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego, Calif.